Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable: Balancing Health and Politics

posted on September 11, 2009

Borg: Balancing health and politics. The nation focusing on overhauling the health care system ... incumbent politicians and those who'd like to be office holders assessing their own political health. We're discussing the early fall political dynamics with Iowa political journalists on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, September 11th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: We're welcoming you now to a new Iowa Press broadcast year, our 38th season on Iowa Public Television. Health care is dominating the national political debate and that affects us all. In Washington, Iowa's two senators, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, are major leaders in that debate. In Iowa, candidates are scrambling to get in line for next June's primary election, now only ten months away, and looking a bit further down the road to another 2010 general election where elections of a governor and U.S. Senator are on the line. Today we're asking Iowa political journalists to help us catch up on a summer of political news and provide future perspective. Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover ... Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson ... James Lynch writes political news for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids ... and Kathie Obradovich is a political columnist for the Des Moines Register. Kathie, the summer saw a lot of republicans lining up to unseat Chet Culver, the democratic incumbent. What is the score card?

Obradovich: Well, they definitely have enough to field a good pick up basketball game at this point. We have Bob Vander Plaats who was the first to get in. He has run twice before and he is really trying hard to get the conservative mantle, he's running further to the right and really focusing on gay marriage. We have about four state lawmakers in the race, Christopher Rants who is former house speaker is probably the best known of those four. We also have Rod Roberts who is a republican state lawmaker from Carroll, Jerry Behn, state senator from Boone, Paul McKinley may or may not run and then the really big question is will former governor Terry Branstad get into the race and really nothing else is going to happen I think until he decides in October.

Glover: The interesting thing, Dean, and Kathie is pretty up to speed on the list of potential candidates, the interesting thing to me is the lack of diversity within that field. Virtually all of those candidates come from the same faction of the Republican Party, the right wing, the religious conservative, Christian conservative wing of the party, all of them except Terry Branstad. Terry Branstad is viewed by many in the Republican Party as the moderate and we have to remember when Terry Branstad ran for governor he was a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. I think that tells me how much the party has changed over the years.

Borg: Jim, is that indicating -- the long list that Kathie just ticked off -- does that indicate to you that republicans are smelling blood in the water? Or what is the motivation for the -- the republicans can't anoint a possibility one or two?

Lynch: Well, I think they do sense that Chet Culver may be vulnerable but you have to have somebody to beat somebody and right now they're going through this sorting process trying to figure out who is somebody among that field of candidates. And right now I think Mike is right, that the field is frozen while we're waiting to hear what Terry Branstad is going to do whether he's going to get in or get out. And I think what's interesting too is they are all very conservative and so the only issues we're hearing about really are gay marriage or same sex marriage and overspending by Chet Culver and there is no robust discussion of new ideas, new policies, new strategies for Iowa.

Borg: Kay, are those the issues that would unseat Chet Culver?

Henderson: Well, there is another candidate in the race, Christian Fong from Cedar Rapids, who intends to make flood recovery a main issue in the race arguing that Governor Culver and state government were slow to respond to the crisis in Cedar Rapids. The other interesting thing about Governor Branstad freezing the race is that if he indeed does not choose to run he's got to get behind one of these candidates quickly and endorse someone, you can't have gone on for two or three months saying this field of candidates lacks the metal to go up against Chet Culver and then choose not to do it yourself, you have to endorse someone else. The other thing that occurs to me as I look at the two candidates, let's say Terry Branstad does run, the two candidates that republicans would have at the top of their ticket are Chuck Grassley who was first elected to public office before at least two of us on this panel were born and Terry Branstad who has not been on the ballot since 1994. So, the face of the Republican Party in 2010 would be old, white men.

Glover: And I think it's interesting -- Jim hit on a very good point here, you have a lot of republicans running for governor saying oh, that lousy Chet Culver did this, that lousy Chet Culver did that, that lousy Chet Culver did that. What I have yet to hear from any of them is here is what I'd do, here is my vision for where I think Iowa ought to be going. I don't hear that robust choice and I think until we start to see that I think republicans are frozen. I think the biggest problem facing Terry Branstad -- Terry Branstad certainly doesn't need political advice from any of us -- but the biggest problem that Terry Branstad I think has to get over before he makes his decision is if he runs it's quite possible he could lose. This is a very different state than it was in 1994. In 1994, there were 115,000 more registered republicans than democrats. 1994 was the year republicans seized Congress after half the century. This is a state with 110,000 more registered democrats than republicans right now where democrats are in the senate seat. I think Terry Branstad could be looking to his grave.

Borg: I want to go back, you said the lousy incumbent governor did this, that and the other thing. Back to my question, is Chet Culver then vulnerable? Is that how they are seeing it? Because if they are not out there saying this is what I'm going to do, they're running against the incumbent, they must believe that he's vulnerable in those areas.

Glover: True believers and that is something that I think is consistent throughout the right wing of the Republican Party and the left wing of the Democratic Party. They truly believe that Chet Culver is a big spending, liberal democrat running the state into the ground, trying to spend our way out of a recession. They truly believe that and they believe they can sell that message because they believe it. I don't think that's a message that is sellable.

Obradovich: They're looking at the economy right now and looking at the way the state budget is going and it has continued to drop and they're saying to themselves, well, we can make a big issues of Governor Culver not doing a good job of maintaining the state budget. The gay marriage issue which came up and Culver said that he would not do anything against the Supreme Court ruling, I think that's a side issue. But in the summer we had a group that did polling that showed that a middle of the road republican who focused on fiscal issues would be likely to win and furthermore they said, well, somebody who looks an awful lot like Terry Branstad would be likely to win. The big problem is that somebody who looks like Terry Branstad has a really hard time winning a primary right now.

Glover: I think part of the wishful thinking of that wing of the party is that they don't understand that at the end of the day it's all going to come down to the economy. Bill Clinton said it in 1992, it's the economy stupid. It looks to me like all signs of an early recovery for this economy. If that's the case and if a year from now in November things are kind of chumming along, the economy is coming around he's going to be very hard to beat.

Henderson: The other thing is there is an anti-incumbent sentiment around the country that we have a couple of governor's races up in 2009 in this country. One of them is in New Jersey where an incumbent democrat appears to be in big trouble and if you look back to 2006 there was an anti-incumbent mood among the country, in 2008 it in many ways was a referendum on George Bush and his presidency and Americans in an anti-incumbent mood chose a different party.

Borg: Jim, is there something to this fiscal responsibility? Chet Culver seems determined to handle this by himself. The news isn't good, the tax revenues are still declining for Iowa but he says it's okay.

Lynch: Well, yes, he's showing a lot of confidence in his policies and I think he may be born out. If the economy starts to turn around by this time next year he's going to claim credit which any incumbent would and people are going to say things are looking pretty good, Chet has done a good job. If tax revenues continue to go down it's another story. Then he becomes vulnerable and republicans can make an issue of it.

Obradovich: The other thing about the economy is that the economy starts to recover quite a long time before state tax revenues catch up so even if we do have a brightening picture as far as job loss, etc. but that state tax revenue is a problem plus they failed to act on federal deductibility which gives another big hit to the state budget and that's a tax policy issue.

Borg: Might that also be a shifting sands issue because if a candidate is running against Chet Culver and the economy does improve before the 2010 general election that issue kind of disappears?

Glover: A lot of things go away if the economy is getting better and, Kathie, you're right, it may not be getting better for everybody, the guy who lost his job may not have gotten his job back, there still could be a lot of people out of work but if the perception is that the economy is on the upswing, you've got to remember if unemployment is 7% that means 93% of the people in the state are working. So, if the perception is the economy is turning around that perception will have a big impact on the election and it seems right, the governor will take credit for it. He had nothing to do with it ...

Obradovich: He may still be in a position of having to cut state budgets well after the economy starts to show signs of improvement and those are hard decisions to make and that is something that the republican field can go out and talk to voters about we had to cut all this money and if we had better managed the budget in the past then we would have had to do that.

Glover: Kevin McCarthy told me in a conversation -- house majority leader -- nothing they do cutting budgets hurts them politically. When I go out there people talk about cut back on state government, cut back on spending, do all that kind of stuff. We cut budgets, he says, as a democrat he doesn't like it but, he says, if I cut the Department of Human Services budget by five percent I win politically.

Borg: Jim, what is the motivation for Terry Branstad to get back into politics?

Lynch: I think there probably are more than one motivator here for them. One I think like any politician he has an ego and he sees a problem out there and he thinks that he can help solve that. Terry Branstad has given the state a lot of service over the years and I think there probably is a genuine desire to help solve this problem. I think this is also about the future of the Republican Party in Iowa. There are groups of people associated with his previous campaigns and administration that want to see the party return to a more what we call now moderate republican philosophy, mainstream, middle of the road republican and they are trying to steer the party in that direction. Right now the party is controlled by mostly hardcore social conservatives who have sort of moved beyond the conservative philosophy that Terry Branstad embraces.

Borg: Would Terry Branstad be embraced by that social conservative group?

Lynch: Some of them, the true believers that Mike talks about wouldn't embrace him because they would see him as being a RINO, republican in name only, that he's not conservative enough. But I think some of them would look at him as a sort of elder statesman of the party, someone who has won elections and may look at him as someone who can win.

Glover: Let me tell you about a couple of conversations I had in the last couple of weeks. One a social conservative called me up and he said, you know, Terry Branstad, he's the guy who appointed that Supreme Court justice that wrote the opinion legalizing gay marriage. A couple of days later I got a phone call from a fiscal conservative, you know that Terry Branstad, he was the governor who presided over the largest increase in the size of state government in history, he signed not one but two increases in state sales tax.

Borg: Members of his own party.

Glover: His own party -- if he runs he's going to have to answer for that. Those are questions that Terry Branstad is going to have to deal with, with that conservative, social and fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party. I said it earlier, Terry Branstad in 1982 was the face of the conservative movement in the Republican Party. He is no longer that, he is now a moderate and it's not that he has changed, the party has changed.

Henderson: He also showed a willingness to compromise with moderates in his party. He may have had a conservative core but in 1990 and again in 1994 he ran with Joy Corning as his lieutenant governor running mate, a point that Bob Vander Plaats, the conservative candidate running for the republican nomination this time around, made a key point as part of his announcement speech this past year in that he essentially said that moderates and liberals need not apply to run with me like they did with Terry Branstad.

Borg: Kathie, is it getting time for Chet Culver to be announcing that yes he is running for re-election?

Obradovich: Oh, I don't think there's any question that he's running.

Borg: Well, I know there isn't any question but when are we going to make it official?

Obradovich: He's been staffing his campaign and he is raising money, quite a bit of money I think and he also has really started to ramp up his public appearances and now these are tied into state policies, they are official gubernatorial appearances and I think we'll see him continue to do that as part of, for example, his I-Jobs program he is going to be cutting a lot of ribbons around the state. I don't think he's in any real hurry to do an official announcement. He'll make a strategic decision about when to do that.

Borg: What is the significance of late this week, this current week he was in Texas, at the Lyndon Johnson Library paid for by democratic national committee on a trip paid by his campaign in Iowa but the event was sponsored by the democratic national committee.

Obradovich: He is raising money and this is ...

Borg: Money raising there?

Obradovich: I think this is part of -- he's not only raising money for himself but he's also raising money for others around the state, he is getting around in a political sense and it's a sign that his campaign is working.

Glover: One of the nice things about being governor, Dean, is when you're running for governor and you are governor whatever you do we pay attention to and when your opponents go out there we don't really pay a lot of attention to them. When Chet Culver cuts a ribbon for an I-Jobs program we come take his picture, we write about it. When Terry Branstad cuts a ribbon for something nobody would pay attention to it. That's the nice thing about being governor. He's not in any particular hurry, he's done a good job I think of making it clear that he's running again so there's not a lot of doubt, that I have heard of there is no primary problem he's going to be facing so what's the rush. He's putting a campaign together, he has hired some very talented operatives to run his campaign, he is actually miles further down the road than any of the republicans in doing this kind of stuff and we've got to remember, Iowa is an organizational state where that kind of stuff means a lot.

Borg: And democrats are really riding high in Iowa right now as they are across the nation, wouldn't you agree with that Kay? In fact, this weekend shouldn't the Harkin steak fry be really a celebration?

Henderson: Well, in many ways it will, of course, because Tom Harkin has just taken over as chairman of a very important committee in the United States Senate, the senate health education, labor and pensions committee which had been headed by Senator Kennedy. I will say the month of August was a surprise to many democrats in that republicans were able to capture the communications momentum connected to the health care debate and I think that surprised a lot of democrats. I think that the President's speech this past week sort of changed the momentum, changed the game somewhat but it is still going to be a fight to the finish over this health care reform debate and I think democrats are very worried about the long-term consequences of the decisions that are made in Washington and how that may percolate among the electorate out here in Iowa and elsewhere.

Glover: It's hard to see how if you're a democrat in Iowa right now you're not feeling pretty good about things. They control both chambers of the legislature, they control the governor's office, they have one of the two senate seats, they probably won't get the other senate seat, about 110,000 more registered democrats than republicans, Barack Obama carried the state fairly easily, he energized and brought a whole bunch of new people into the democratic party so yes, this is a pretty good time for democrats. But politics is cyclical. I remember in the 1970s when the democrats were in the process of forcing out conservative, pro-life democrats, forcing them out of the party, saying we don't need them and they were on a long losing streak and then rebounded. Republicans are down right now but politics is cyclical and they too will come back.

Obradovich: And historically the mid-term benefits the party that is not in power and that is the republicans right now in Iowa in spades and I do think that the activity that you saw, the energy this August that Kay mentioned is probably a big reminder to democrats that they can't sit back and kick their feet up and assume that they are going to hold the house, for example, without really having to engage. I think that special election down in house district 90 down in southern Iowa was an example of how they are going to have to work. A democrat won that by 107 votes in a district that really favored democrats.

Glover: And his predecessor, a democrat, was elected by 52 votes.

Borg: Jim, let's go back to something Kay introduced here and that is Tom Harkin taking over from Senator Kennedy's committee so that puts Senator Grassley and Senator Harkin both in key leadership roles on this health care debate.

Lynch: They are going to be key players here no doubt and we're all waiting to see what Grassley and his gang of six comes out with in terms of a health care plan next week and Tom Harkin has made it pretty clear where he is and what he wants in terms of a special or public option as part of that plan. So, it's going to be interesting to watch these two guys because they are not in agreement but they are both key players here.

Borg: What is in it for Iowa, Kay, with both Harkin and Grassley in key roles, one a democrat, one a republican but both in key roles? Anything in it for Iowa with two senators?

Henderson: In one of the bills that is percolating through the house, three bills have cleared committee in house, it includes Medicare reimbursement changes. In Iowa hospitals, doctors and other health care providers are paid less for treating elderly and disabled patients than most other states and Braley on a key committee in the house was able in collaboration with other Iowa lawmakers to get a provision in a bill that cleared one of the house committees to change the way that the formula is calculated for paying hospitals and doctors in Iowa and elsewhere.

Borg: That's been a struggle for a long time and Iowa has not succeeded over decades to get that reimbursement rate changed.

Glover: I think Kay is right, Iowans are in key positions in this and they will be able to make some tweaks in the health care bill maybe to help out Iowa's Medicare reimbursement, that sort of thing but overall the big question that Jim mentioned, the public option as part of a health care plan that's going to get decided at a level between Harry Reid, the majority leader of the senate and Barack Obama and I'm beginning to suspect that there is not going to be a bipartisan bill. I'm beginning to suspect that political pressure on republicans from the right wing of their party will end up, if there is going to be a bill emerge from Congress it will be one shaped by democrats.

Borg: What are the implications, Kathie, of Senator Harkin resigning as ag committee chairman in order to take this Kennedy committee?

Obradovich: Well, Senator Harkin, of course, has been a key player on the Kennedy committee already and he really is able to control a lot of things that affect the Iowa economy as part of that committee. But by taking away as chairman of the Department of Agriculture or chairman of the agriculture committee there was some speculation that perhaps the new chairman, Blanche Lincoln, who is from Arkansas, would maybe allow southern ag interests to have a little bit more sway, more clout on that committee than they have in the past. Iowa ag interests do not always gel with their southern neighbors so it will be interesting to see how that part of it plays out.

Glover: It's an interesting choice because Tom Harkin has held onto that ag committee position over the years so that every six years when he comes back to run for re-election he's able to say but I'm chairman of the senate ag committee and I'm ranking member of the senate ag committee. It tells me that he right now doesn't feel the need to have that little tick on his resume.

Borg: Part of that would be does he inherit the Kennedy mantle of that committee?

Glover: No, Ted Kennedy was in the senate for almost 50 years, was in the middle of American politics as a generational type of a thing, it took him all those years to build the Kennedy mantle. Harkin will walk in as a key player, a key liberal voice in the United States Senate but no, he won't inherit Ted Kennedy's role.

Henderson: I think Russ Feingold from a neighboring state of Wisconsin is much better able to inherit the mantle because it's a rhetorical mantle, it's not an institutional mantle in the U.S. Senate. The thing I would say about Harkin leaving the senate ag committee is that some folks in the ethanol industry have a few worries but people point to former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack being Secretary of Agriculture and Barack Obama having demonstrated his support of ethanol as an alternative fuel during his tenure as a United States Senator representing the state of Illinois. And there are some key decisions that the Obama administration is going to make on ethanol in the coming days including whether to go from a ten percent to a fifteen percent ethanol blend.

Borg: Jim, can Chuck Grassley, is he at risk at all -- he's coming up for re-election in 2010, November 2010. Two candidates have announced against him, democratic candidates who will have to get the nomination of that party. Is he at all at risk in this health care debate with a leadership role? He's being quoted nationally a lot. Might he be at risk in his own home state if he doesn't do the right thing with voters here?

Lynch: Well, I think the only risk he has is that his profile is much higher today than it was say six years ago or twelve years ago so people who are following the health care debate are, depending on which side they are on, they like what Chuck Grassley is doing or they don't and the risk that I see is that one of these candidates who has come out against him, Tom Feegan, a former state senator or Bob Krause, the former state legislator, one of them catches fire with progressive groups and they start raising money on the Internet, they start raising money from all over the country to fund one of these guys, to give them the resources they need to actually run a campaign against Chuck Grassley. He is at risk in the same way Jim Leach was at risk against Dave Loebsack. It's possible, not probable, but possible.

Glover: You and I have some disagreements about this. My answer to the question will be a little shorter than his. Is Chuck Grassley at risk? No, not with the field that democrats have put out there up against him right now.

Henderson: The other risk that he has that I see is that there will be a set of republicans who are so upset with him that they won't work for his re-election and they may not vote for him. So, if there is a sizeable drop off in republican support of Chuck Grassley republicans may be voting for every other republican on the ballot but Chuck Grassley and some democrat does catch fire in some way. I think that is the thing that puts his candidacy most in jeopardy because you have 110,000 more registered democrats in the state.

Obradovich: I think if Chuck Grassley was really in trouble we would have seen a big, main democrat come out against him and there has been rumors all summer that there is somebody in the wings and people's names keep being floated and time after time they so, no, not me, I'm not running. So, I think that unless we see a big name democrat get in Chuck Grassley probably has very little to worry about.

Glover: The only name I haven't heard in this thing is Dean's.

Obradovich: Let's ask him right now, Dean, are you going to run against Chuck Grassley?

Borg: We're out of time.

Glover: Kathie hits it right on the head. You can't beat somebody with nobody and no disrespect to these two democrats, they are former state legislators, they're real politicians but they are not on a level with Chuck Grassley. Unless something out of the blue happens they're not going to be. So, the world can change in 24 hours in politics, John Culver, the current governor's father his famous statement was 24 hours is a lifetime in politics. But it's going to take a radical changing of the environment for him to be in trouble.

Borg: We've got about 45 seconds and what I would like to say, is it at all possible that whoever the republicans nominate to run against Chet Culver, indeed if it would be Terry Branstad, does that increase the chances of regaining control of one house in the legislature?

Glover: No, those elections really aren't tied -- if you look nationally as Bill Clinton was in the White House democrats were leading the senate. Legislative elections tend to be run on their own.

Obradovich: If the top of the ticket is very popular that helps raise money but I wouldn't be surprised if Barack Obama came to help raise money for Chet Culver. I think that some of that trickles down as well.

Borg: Thanks so much for your insights. That is this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back at the usual Iowa Press airtimes next weekend, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I hope you'll watch as we now move into our new broadcast year. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Archive editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

Tags: health Iowa politics